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Elevator 27: Chuck D

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‘Fight the Power’ is arguably the most iconic and important rap song ever made. Public Enemy is arguably the most iconic and important rap group of all time. Right in the centre of the action is rapper Chuck D, a man who has eloquently opened the minds of numerous generations to the true state of the world and our ability to be agents of change. His contribution to rap is immeasurable.

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of playing ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ to primary school classes, explaining to them the various elements that make Chuck D’s group so unique and giving them Public Enemy illustrations to colour in.

At times while listening to Public Enemy I start to weep. It happened again today. The sonic hurricane, the audacity of the lyrics, the mockery and fury in Chuck’s booming delivery, his belief that change can happen and the sheer ridiculousness that many of the grave injustices Public Enemy have been pointing out for the last 30 years have still never been addressed by those responsible.

Public Enemy isn’t just a clever name. The powers that be have set their media blood hounds on them throughout the years in an attempt to silence the group. They’ve also been an annoyance to other rappers who Chuck D claims have sold their souls away or are paying inadequate respect to their musical forefathers.

‘New Whirl Odor’, ‘There’s a Poison Goin’ On’, ‘Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age’, ‘The Evil Empire of Everything’:  album titles that paint a bleak picture. The strange thing is that despite Chuck being a prophet of doom, he’s approachable, warm and humble. In 2011 after performing a 25-song set at the Institute in Birmingham, I witnessed Chuck’s post-gig activities. This 51-year-old had the time and an astounding reservoir of energy to meet people [fans and others artists], to engage in proper conversations, to encourage and simply listen.

Chuck D’s manner, his lyrics and his cadence are that of a sports coach. He’s putting you through a body-breaking exercise, but he’s there with you, looking you in the eyes, cheering you on. He’s a leader, the kind of leader that is quick to point out others abilities and contributions.

Chuck D is a sage and a 5th columnist, black, proud, crystal-clear, unflinching, honourable, humble, deeply creative, a strategist, a revolutionary voice: in short AmeriKKKa’s real worst nightmare.

It seems impossible to turn earnest messages and discordant, pounding, screaming music into party anthems, but Public Enemy have made it happen over and over again. Because of the sheer magnitude of the PE sound, it was essential to have a primary vocalist whose voice cut through the racket. Chuck at times steamrolls over the beat, with idiosyncratic pauses and cadences more akin to beat poets or preachers.

Are you a long time rap music fan? Try to imagine hip-hop without Public Enemy. Try to imagine hip-hop without Chuck D’s baritone sermons. Imagine hip-hop without the outbursts of the world’s most charismatic jester/hypeman Flavor Flav. What a horrible vision that is!

In a world of easily snappable sapling rappers, Chuck D is a towering Sequoia redwood: steady, unshakeable and inspiring.

More killer tracks: Shut ‘Em Down and Air Hoodlum.

Here’s recent Chuck D interviews with Tavis Smiley and Arsenio Hall

PE’s induction into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame [some profound moments in this 21 minute clip]

Tune into Chuck’s weekly radio show here: www.rapstation.com/BEATSandPLACESTheSOUNDofHistory

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Elevator 12: Ka

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Ka might not want me to make a big fuss about him, so how ‘bout just a little blog post? This Brownsville veteran emcee is self aware, lyrically raw and, for a rapper, unusually modest.

Ka claims: “I already know my songs are not for everyone. They’re not for the radio, the club or the masses.”

About his previous crew Natural Elements he says: “I felt like I was bringing them down. They were more lyrical than me; they were flipping a lot of fly shit. I went to start my own group Nightbreed. I got a little better. I think Kev was better than me, I still tell him that today.”

His flow is beautiful, every word placed with care. Nate Patrin of Pitchfork labels Ka’s delivery as “quietly straightforward; not an easy way to get a fickle listener’s attention.”

So, yes, Ka’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his music is growing on me.

I think Ka is an elevator because he paints with care, creating albums with themes that permeate the tracks like a thick smog. Pain, regret, dread and as vivid a street tale spitter as anyone out there.

In this Out Da Box TV interview he says: “In the 80’s I was a teenage…Crack cocaine just exploded in the neighborhood. Some people think they was winning cause they was hustlin’ but it f**ked the whole hood up. I saw the death of the crack wars. We lost a lot. If I had a seed [offspring], I know I wouldn’t want my seed to experience shit like that. I feel like I’m hundred and something years old.”

Clearly he’s content with how his 2012 album ‘Grief Pedigree’ turned out:

Listen to the street knowledge observations of ‘Cold Facts’:

The bleak ‘Summer’:

And ‘Up Against Goliath’:

Here’s his Grief Pedigree album video playlist – He made a video for each track.

The highlights of his 2008 ‘Iron Works’ album are the melancholy ‘Sunday To Sunday’, the deadly storytelling and soundscape of ‘Iron Work’ and ‘Children’.

The refrain in ‘Children’ is a simple profound observation:

It’s the children that bring balance in the hood

So let’s not make them age faster than they should

Another pithy interview: Question in the Form of an Answer: Ka

Grab a cold drink and hang out for a few minutes with a soft-spoken street scholar. Lean in and just listen.

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Elevator 8: Aesop Rock

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It was a great moment. Dj Cro looked at me wide-eyed and smiley, “You don’t know Aesop Rock? Well, you should really listen to ‘Daylight’ first. Then you’ll get all the cross references in ‘Nightlight'”. I was flicking through 12inch singles at a now long forgotten record shop in Birmingham city centre and had come across ‘Coma’ and ‘The Daylight EP’, both tracks off the Aesop Rock’s 2001 album ‘Labor Days’.

“Actually”, Cro continued, “just listen to ‘Labor Days’. It’s incredible.”

So I did. And 11 years later I still dig every minute of it. From the weaselly electric chord attack on the opener to the beautiful assonance of the chorus on ‘Shovel’ this album is a perfectly constructed hour of verbal gymnastics, vivid imagery and the ache of a working day wasted in some call-centre selling a product nobody needs for a meagre wage. Yes, Aesop nails that mood.

Also embedded throughout the ‘Labor Days’ album is a contrasting insolent mood – a rallying cry to break from the pack and find a new path.

Aesop Rock’s lyrics are often cryptic and/or abstract. The lazy reviewer might whine about how dense, even impenetrable his material is or mock Aesop’s supposedly scatterbrained non-sequitur verses, but like all well-formed hard-graft poetry, Aesop’s lyrics are meant to be mulled over. I still catch new wordplay and moments of sublime perceptiveness almost every time I don headphones and get immersed in his world. How ’bout ‘Battery’? You can follow along with the lyrics here.

He can do simple storytelling too; ‘Regrets’, his tale of 7-year-old outsider Lucy must have single-handedly won him many new fans.

‘One of Four’, the hidden ‘thank you’ track at the end of ‘The Daylight EP’ is so vulnerable and disarming that it’s hard not to feel strong sympathy for Aesop.

Aesop is not trying to constantly baffle the listener. He just wants them to dig deeper. His 2005 EP, Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives featured a 88-page booklet of his lyrics, a little goldmine of alliteration and aha! moments. In the fortnight running up to the release of his 2012 solo album Skelethon he gave a short intro to each of the songs on the album. Even with these explanations, Skelethon is a monster of an album to absorb, but it is SO WORTH IT.

With Skelethon Aesop Rock is showing us that there is new territory to cross and as a wordsmith he should be considered one of the top poetic writers in the English language in the 21st Century. Here’s the Pitchfork review.

The low end on Zero Dark Thirty is wonderful, so don’t even bother to play this on your computer. Hook this up to some speakers.

In this video to Cycles to Gehenna we see an appreciation of the beauty and grace of the female form, without anything willfully erotic to obscure the view.

ZZZ Top captures the moment of discovering and embracing the power of music and throwing your lot in with the outcrowd.

Aesop is a collaborator and he seemed particularly at ease when performing with Rob Sonic and Dj Wiz as Hail Mary Mallon. Grubstake is the 3am banter with your best mates at the diner and Smock is paranoia dropped in a vat of biro funk.

Oh, and now he’s part of a duo with singer/songwriter Kimya Dawson called The Uncluded.

With 9 lyric-filled releases since 2000 there’s a lot of Aesop Rock material to digest, but if you’re stuck with where to start, meet the man as he explains his new motto, “Take the brain out, leave the heart in”.

Here’s Aesop’s label page with the latest on his various projects

Thank you, Dj Cro for introducing me to Aesop Rock. My life and vocabulary are richer.

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Elevator 6: Eternia

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A few years ago when I heard about Eternia’s tour of high schools as part of a Plan Canada charity initiative, I felt compelled to write her to just say: ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing – you’re changing lives’. The tour addressed women’s and girls rights. As a parent of a young girl I’d be dead excited to have a female rapper who’s not afraid to be perceived as a role-model come to speak and rap at my kid’s school about identity, self-esteem and girls rights.

Eternia, originally from Ottawa, now based in NYC, exudes generosity. She’s not content with making records. She whole-heartedly champions various causes and artists. With trademark gusto she hosts this recent free-to-download ‘World Hip Hop Women’ mixtape.

She writes heart-on-sleeve raps. In this interview with Canadian Journal This Magazine she explains: “one of the running critiques of It’s Called Life [her debut full-length release] was, “Great album, great album, too personal.” People don’t want you to go that deep, almost like it made them uncomfortable. But I can say for the most part people really relate and appreciate having someone else speak their story.”

I’m partial to this Beach Boys sampling scorcher of a track ‘Evidence’ from that early album.

In 2010 Eternia and collaborator hip-hop producer MoSS released the heavy-hitting album ‘At Last’. Album opener ‘Any Man’ certainly pulls no punches.

But my goodness, it’s this song ‘To the Future’ which just melts your heart and shows Eternia at her most personal and profound.

Last week Eternia answered a few questions I put to her:

70elevators: Which of your positive attributes is most evident in your music?
E: Probably my faith. I like to think my music has a ‘victorious’, ‘overcome all odds’ feel to it, for the most part. And that is an accurate reflection of my personality and approach to life. The glass is half full no matter what the circumstance. I do my best to appreciate the journey, even in the lowest of moments.

70elevators: If you could change one thing in the world what would it be?
E: People living compartmentalized lives and viewing the world in compartments.
Stereotyping, judging, making assumptions: this type of thinking and approach to life drives me crazy. I prefer a more holistic view and approach to all things and all people.

70elevators: If you were introducing someone to hip-hop music which album would you have them listen to?
E: That’s hard. Off the top I would probably say Nas’ ‘Illmatic’.

Here’s her music site: http://eternia.bandcamp.com

And her everything else site: http://therealeternia.tumblr.com/

Down-to-earth, undaunted, positive & profound, Eternia’s a one-woman destroyer of stereotypes and the brilliant thing about a vanquished stereotype is that when it’s gone it’s usually gone for good.

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Elevator 1: Homeboy Sandman

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First of all, welcome! Welcome rap fans, rap veterans, rap doubters, rap visionaries, rap beginners, rap genre toe-dippers. 70 Elevators has arrived.

Meet Homeboy Sandman, the first of the 70 Elevators.

He’s a New York vocalist, who sticks out like a sore thumb. His first recordings were released in 2007 and by the following year he was receiving accolades all over the place. He clearly struck a chord. But what makes him distinctive? On one level, he simply has a love for language, which is almost giddy. He attacks the listener with astounding assonance, he spins sentences, and delivers whole verses in a sing-song duotone drawl as if he got carried away on a stream of consciousness and forgot that he was recording a song.

Some of his raps seem to be structured specifically to overwhelm the listener lyrically, but it’s clear from his live performances that Homeboy Sandman genuinely wants to connect with people and engage their minds and spirits. He isn’t afraid to be aggressive, tender-hearted or nerdy. I love ‘The Carpenter’. I think it’s worth opening up this video and watching it in HD.

In an interview with aweh.tv he was asked whether there was a running theme throughout his music. Homeboy responded: ‘Honesty, integrity, bravery, courage, defiance, and faith are a few themes that I think weave their way throughout all my work.’ He is unabashed about seeing a new breed of hip-hop practitioners impacting culture positively in direct opposition to mainstream rap.

This is classic hypnotic Homeboy Sandman

In a short interview I asked him if he was introducing someone to hip-hop music what would be the one album he would get them to listen to? He said: ‘Do You Want More??!?!! by The Roots’. In fact on his wonderfully candid track ‘Not Really’ he speaks with almost childlike hero worship of the rapper Black Thought of The Roots.

He’s a passionate prose writer too.

Here’s his site: www.homeboysandman.com An ol’ Groovement interview

April 2020 Update
Since I wrote this post Homeboy Sandman has released more astonishing records including these albums:
Hallways (2014)
Kindness for Weakness (2016)
Veins (2017)
Humble Pi (2018) (with Edan)
Dusty (2019)

and these EPs:
All That I Hold Dear (2013)
White Sands (2014)
Lice (2015) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Two: Still Buggin’ (2016) (with Aesop Rock)
Lice Three: Triple Fat Lice (2017) (with Aesop Rock)

There’s so many newer songs I could point you to, but these are fire: